'MISS SMITH" hardly ever misses a day of my French classes at Spingarn High School, and she always enters with a bright smile. One problem, however: She always puts her head down on her desk and goes to sleep for most of the period.
I noticed a small thing about her: She seemed to take an interest in the Swedish ivy plant I had brought to the classroom. She began to look after it and refer to it as "our plant." The other day I brought her one, a cutting from home. Her return gift to me was a promise not to sleep in class any more and to do her French.
On the following Tuesday, Miss Smith got an A on our vocabulary quiz. Interesting what a little bit of ivy can do for education. Actually, I don't think it was the small gesture of recognition.
Like most teachers, I find that discipline problems can be frustrating and exhausting, even angering. As a teacher, I am more frustrated by the lack of serious discussion on the causes, especially among black children in the cities. Educators have addressed thousands of words to this problem, but I don't see much meaningful research on the cultural factors that lie beneath it.
The research should start with Ralph Ellison, whose "Invisible Man" described the central problem of a minority people in a dominant American culture. He wrote:
"I am invisible . . . simply because people refuse to see me . . . You often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren't simply a phantom in other people's minds . . . You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you're a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, and curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it's seldom successful."
I see Ellison's point made again and again in my classroom. The talking out loud, the theatrical entrances, the numerous trips to the pencil sharpener, the name-calling addressed to other students and to the teacher, even the fighting - all are pleas for recognition.
The young people I have met in urban classrooms are basically good-hearted and well-intentioned. They need recognition and, almost as important, affection. This is by no means restricted to black Americans. The "mean" kids - white or black - are often signaling their need for attention and affection.
A lot of this behavior, I think, starts with the deteriorating family structure - children left alone to fend for themselves. Ironically, this problem used to be associated with the children of the rich who left them to the care of nurses or nannies. Poor parents often make the same mistake that rich parents have made - believing that gifts or granting their children's every wish will substitute for care and love.
A teacher can make a difference for such children. I imagine many teachers have experiences like mine, when a small gesture of encouragement makes a big difference in classroom performance.
In my Spanish class, "Miss Green" makes outrageous comments to get a laugh. "Miss Murphy" is intelligent and gentle. "Mr. Jones" is always engaging in high-jinks to provoke an uproar. Nevertheless, I have been able to get most of them interested in learning Spanish.
When they act up too much, I "bust them out" by scolding severely. I urge them to "go for the gold." They sulk a bit when I scold, but often the student who acts up one day does the best work the next.
I send the students to the blackboard often, and they love to go. Many black kids suffer from feelings of inferiority, and this is a chance for them to perform before an audience.
Working on conjugation, they know the verb endings reasonably well but the stress of their pronunciation is often off. I challenge them to do better with this line: "It is said that we have natural rhythm and we khow we have. So you can use that same sense of rhythm to learn the proper stress on a Spanish verb." I beat out the correct rhythm on my desktop and stamp my feet like a flamenco dancer.
After the teachers' strike of nearly four weeks, I saw a tremendous change in my French and Spanish classes. All the old discipline problems came back.
"Miss Jenkins," a polite and attentive student, suddenly was loud and boisterous and refused to accept my criticism. The same was true of others in the classroom, laughing and joking and playing.
After wasting 15 minutes trying to establish discipline, getting angry and raising my voice, I was able to restore a modicum of cooperation, order enough that I could ask them to write out a translation.
I always get over any anger or resentment toward disruptive students. My approach is good humor because I do believe these young people are good. I believe friendliness and mutual respect are the best approach. If a teacher can help them get beyond their problems of discipline, a teacher can get back to the real business of education.